Vacationers and meeting planners alike are sold on Florida, and the numbers tell the story.
With 30.8 million tourist visits in the fourth quarter of last year, the state actually surpassed its tourism numbers for the same period in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s despite many foreign countries — always a big supplier for Florida’s tourism — having border restrictions that limited travel. And for the first quarter of this year, the visitor numbers rose to 36 million, despite the arrival of the Omicron variant.
“We return to Florida again and again with different groups,” says Katherine Helder, CMP, president & co-owner, ASH Meetings. “The number of flights in and out of the state is hard to beat, and so many properties in Florida just get hospitality. From the sourcing, to the planning and the on-site execution, events in the ‘Sunshine State’ always seem to be a pleasure to plan, and we see great attendee turnout whenever we book a Florida property.”
For Nandita Mohile, senior events director with the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, the priority for her company was a setting that would feel like a destination and excite attendees. “We also wanted a warm-weather location to host outdoor activities and create a bucket-list experience for the attendees,” Mohile says.
And Lisa Bell, event strategist at Maritz Global Events, says her Los Angeles-based client wanted not just a warm destination, but one with international flair that would appeal to a wide variety of ages. “The attendees were arriving from all over the world, so airlift was also key,” Bell says. “They look for as many direct flights as possible, predominantly from Los Angeles, New York and London, as they prefer not to book flights with connections.”
In addition to abundant connectivity, Florida consistently ranks well in one other competitive facet: airfare. FinanceBuzz looked at pricing for the nation’s 45 busiest airports and found four of the five least expensive airports are located in Florida. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) came out on top, with an average fare to depart of $233.36. No. 2 on the list of cheapest airports: Orlando International Airport (MCO) having an average fare of $241.01.
To be sure, what’s driving the high tourism numbers coming out of the pandemic is the leisure sector. Meetings, conventions and incentives have had a tougher time coming back full force, though the writing is on the wall for a full recovery by next year, according to most experts. Still, some groups have “toughed it out” and met with success.
Caitlin Adams, director, meetings & membership for the Commercial Real Estate Finance Council (CREFC), says January this year was challenging timing for a conference. “CREFC’s conference was taking place just as Omicron was peaking,” Adams says. The group usually attracts around 2,000 attendees for its annual conference. This year’s event pulled in 1,400 in-person attendees, plus additional attending via livestream provided for a corresponding virtual event. “Anyone who registered for the in-person component could also watch the livestream if they couldn’t make it at the last minute, or if they just wanted to be in their hotel room for a little while,” Adams says.
Adams adds that the Loews Miami Beach Hotel is one of her favorite properties. The iconic, 790-room resort is located on South Beach, a half-mile from the Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC). Loews Miami Beach has a 28,000-sf ballroom, which can seat more than 7,000 attendees banquet-style, plus 28 breakout rooms. There’s 65,000 sf of indoor meeting space, along with 15,000 sf of outdoor space, most of it just a stone’s throw from the world-famous beach.
“Our organization likes this property because our meeting size is large enough to take over all of the function space and most of the sleeping rooms, so we are the only group on-site,” Adams says. “CREFC sets up outdoor cabanas for our members to host meetings throughout the conference. The ability to incorporate outdoor space into the conference is a refreshing element when so many conferences are confined to the same indoor spaces day in and day out. We also host a beach party, and that is a really nice experience for conference attendees. There is a great mix of indoor and outdoor space at the hotel, but most importantly, the staff is top-notch. Every email and phone call is returned quickly.”
Adams continues: “I think one of the most important things that a venue must have is the right service level and the right approach to partnering with an event planner. The Loews Miami Beach never lacks for staff, and my counterparts at the hotel are with me every step of the way, through the planning process to the on-site execution. They never leave my side, and together we can anticipate challenges and make changes quickly if needed.”
With the Omicron variant lurking, CREFC worked with Clear to provide vaccination verification, they required masks in all indoor spaces, and temperature screenings for all attendees. CREFC also offered on-site optional COVID-19 testing — both PCR and rapid tests. Attendees could also get a rapid COVID test kit to take in the comfort of their hotel room or for when they got home.
“We also offered livestreaming for our conference,” says Adams, who notes that CREFC travels with a production team that handles all of streaming equipment and production. “I think livestreaming is an important offering, but nothing replaces in-person interactions and experiences. A hybrid conference certainly adds layers of complexity and cost to an event. It’s one thing to binge watch Netflix, but I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who will sit through 2 1/2 days of a livestreamed conference.”
Adams concludes: “Pick great partners and vendors who communicate well, who understand what you are trying to accomplish, and will work with you to achieve a shared success. At the end of the day, it is nice to know that your hotel is one of the strongest partners you have — especially when you have so many attendees and sponsors counting on you to deliver an exceptional experience.”
For an event late last year, Bell says the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area offered multiple luxury hotels to choose from, each offering its own character. The client, a multinational independent investment bank and financial services company, chose The Diplomat Beach Resort Hollywood, part of the Curio Collection by Hilton. “We were specifically looking for a hotel that was its own destination, so attendees didn’t feel like they had to venture out,” Bell says. “This was important, as the U.S. was still working through COVID. Even though the meeting was in Florida, this is a California headquartered company and people were still hesitant to travel — the safety and well-being of the client’s attendees was top priority. We felt that, given the size of the resort, we could maximize social distancing while taking advantage of its abundant outdoor meeting space and venues.”
The client also had other requirements: They wanted exclusivity for their 250 attendees, and to not worry about competing events in the same meeting space, they wanted indoor-outdoor spaces, and natural light was extremely important. A hybrid event was not an option — the face-to-face component was pivotal to the gathering’s success.
Bell says a personal priority was also making sure the company selected a venue that was fully open and operating with its full staff. “I reached out to the resort’s general manager and to [a senior sales executive], and we discussed the need for a successful program. They assured me that the team was committed to execute our program and that they were excited to have us. This gave me 100% confidence that the meeting would be executed at the highest level, and that is exactly what happened.” She continues: “COVID was winding down and Florida had stayed open,” Bell says. “Being a California-based company, they wanted to be able to social distance while taking advantage of all of the outdoor meeting space. We were the only group in-house over our dates, so we could spread out.”
Florida no longer had a mask mandate, but The Diplomat staff was still wearing masks, which helped align with California’s protocols, allowing attendees to feel safe, and the group also conducted daily testing. “Everyone on staff was ready and willing to plan and execute a successful event. The employees were happy to be working and went out of their way to make the event special,” Bell says. “Management was a huge support to our team — they recognized our vision and executed it perfectly.”
Located in Hollywood, between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, the 1,000-room Diplomat Beach Resort offers 209,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting and event spaces, and includes an on-site convention center, four ballrooms, a 50,000-sf Great Hall, and 39 individual breakout/meeting rooms.
Just a bit north in Palm Beach County, the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in April was reconfirmed for the eighth consecutive time to Forbes Travel Guide’s list of 5-star Florida hotels. With more than 30,000 sf of meeting and event space, the resort accommodates groups from 10 to 1,000 and offers a wide variety of indoor and outdoor venues for private events. Eau Palm Beach Resort also recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation to common areas, starting with a new pool area designed to evoke the Riviera lifestyle. The palm-fringed, adults-only Tranquility Pool features new seating areas, cabanas and daybeds, and a seated bar for cold-pressed juices and imaginative cocktails; the reimagined Family Pool emphasizes lighthearted fun, with family-friendly cabanas and a new splash pad. The resort also features six reimagined culinary outlets, four of which are entirely new concepts: a coffee shop, ice cream parlor, spa cafe and sushi bar.
Other convention resorts in the area include The Breakers Palm Beach, which offers 80,000 sf of meeting space; The Boca Raton, which also offers 80,000 sf of meeting space at its Mizner Center; Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa, which offers 12,000 sf of meeting space; and Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach, which offers 21,000 sf of meeting space.
The Palm Beach County region consists of 39 distinct cities and towns and offers the best in golf, spas, dining and entertainment. The area also boasts 47 miles of Atlantic Ocean beaches, more than 160 dive sites, more than 160 golf courses, and more than 80 parks and natural areas, in addition to wildlife sanctuaries, including Loggerhead Marinelife Center and Busch Wildlife Sanctuary.
For an inaugural client meeting in mid-spring this year, R&Q Accredited chose the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, located in Ponte Vedra Beach, just southeast of Jacksonville and next door to the TPC Sawgrass golf club. The resort offers traditional hotel rooms and suites, plus family-friendly villas set against miles of pristine beachfront. “We liked that Ponte Vedra is on the beach and right in the middle of several major golf courses,” says Rochelle Frederick, CAP, executive assistant to the CEO. “The Sawgrass Marriott is a full-service convention location, meaning they had everything we needed in-place.” The resort offers more than 90,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including the 15,741-sf Champions Ballroom and 22 breakout rooms.
“We also liked fact that they had on-site A/V, and shipping and receiving through FedEx, and FedEx was also able to provide and install our signage. Most importantly, the event-planning team was on-point and provided us with all the information we needed. They answered all of our questions and addressed any concerns we had during the planning stages, and it was all done professionally. Frederick adds: “I like the Marriott properties. They’re reliable, have great amenities and are usually very nice and well-maintained. They are my go-tos for small meetings — groups of 15 to 20 people.”
This event was larger, with 198 attendees, and one challenge Frederick noted was the resort’s distance from the Jacksonville International Airport — 35 miles. She says, “Even though we liked the location, it was not convenient for airport transfers and we really had to plan around transferring our people between the airport and the property because Marriott does not provide that transportation. It would have been a huge plus for us if they had.”
However, Marriott Sawgrass came through with an alternate catering menu for meals, which saved quite a bit of money for the group. “And their team was available and able to assist us in real-time on one-off things. Anything we needed, our conference coordinator was there and constantly available and able to provide it,” she adds.
Orlando continues to serve as Florida’s busiest meeting destination, and development shows no sign of abating, led by a massive expansion of the Universal Orlando Resort footprint with the construction of the 750-acre Epic Universe theme park. The new facility, located immediately northeast of the Orlando Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), is set to open in 2025.
Another development, Evermore Orlando Resort, is a 1,100-acre property located immediately north of Walt Disney World Resort, on land that was previously known as the Villas at Grand Cypress, a high-end golf resort. While the villas remain closed at the moment, the entire property is receiving a dramatic makeover, starting with the creation of an 8-acre crystalline swimming lagoon replete with white-sand beaches occupying the heart of the facility. When it opens next summer, Evermore Orlando Resort will feature nearly 1,500 bedrooms spread among an array of stay experiences, including vacation homes, villas and flats. The property will be anchored by the Conrad Orlando at Evermore, a 433-room luxury resort overlooking the lagoon and including 40,000 sf of indoor meeting space, a full-service spa and numerous dining options, including a signature rooftop experience. Proximity to the Disney attractions will be a key sales point, as will the championship golf facilities.
Inside Disney World, Helder has used the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resorts twice this year, with two separate groups in early spring. One was a payments association with bankers and credit unions from all over the Southeastern U.S. that drew 300 attendees. The second was a financial security group from across the country — including some international attendees — an event for 1,300 people. “The Swan and Dolphin has become, simply put, my favorite property to host an event,” Helder says. “I’ve returned with various clients again and again, because once they utilize the resort once, they come back as often as they are able. The consistently high level of service is impossible to resist. Their sales team takes the time to know our group and our goals, and brings creative solutions to the table each and every time. The planning teams — from technology to catering to set-up — work seamlessly with one another. They anticipate our needs, present fun new ideas to keep meetings fresh, and make what can be a stressful process instead an extremely enjoyable one.”
The Swan and Dolphin complex is located between EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios — within walking distance of both — and guests enjoy some of the same benefits as staying at a Disney resort, such as early park admission and transportation. The Swan and Dolphin features 22 restaurants and lounges, six pools, three health clubs and the Mandara Spa. With a combined 2,267 rooms, the Marriott-managed property possesses more than 332,000 sf of meeting space, including 110,500 sf of contiguous convention/exhibit space. Last year, an expansion added the Swan Reserve, a 349-room, standalone boutique hotel just across the road from the main complex featuring an additional 15,000 sf of meeting space.
One of Helder’s events was an after-dark function arranged at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, including a private reception at Launch Bay. Proximity to Disney parks and other assets is a key advantage the Swan and Dolphin has over properties located just outside the Walt Disney World Resort. Helder says the exhibit space her clients need requires a unique layout.
“We work hard to pull attendees to every corner of it,” she says. “The hotel worked with us on a fun food-truck layout, with a truck in each corner of the hall. Each truck served food at every meal and break, and really helped to facilitate movement around the space. I had another client who went ‘hybrid’ with their event for the first time, and was nervous about connectivity issues. The entire technology team at the hotel was so accommodating and reassuring, and it couldn’t have gone better.”
Helder continues: “Once we arrive on-site, the smiling faces of the staff and their willingness to go above and beyond make all the difference. We always get great feedback on the quality of food, which is no small thing at an event. And the staff is always on the ball with room changes, refreshes, sleeping room needs, and about anything you could think of. We will come back to the Swan and Dolphin again and again.”
Not to be overlooked, over the last decade, Universal Orlando has expanded its geographical footprint in Central Florida, but also its facilities for the meetings sector, supplementing its two theme parks, water park, and Universal CityWalk shopping and entertainment complex with eight hotels offering more than 9,000 rooms. Meeting facilities are found at four of the resorts and concentrated at the 1,000-room Loews Royal Pacific Resort and 1,000-room Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, which share the Loews Meeting Complex at Universal Orlando, offering 247,000 sf of combined space.
Mohile says Oliver Wyman chose Orlando largely due to direct air access, with 1,500 attendees coming in from 15 offices around the country. “We needed to have a high volume of flights from major cities like New York, Boston and Toronto,” Mohile says. Some colleagues were coming from Canada, Mexico and Brazil for the late spring event. “We also needed a location that could accommodate the guest rooms and meeting space for our size — we didn’t want to have a large footprint across too many hotels.” Additional factors included competitive pricing, access to the Universal theme parks and being able to work with one brand across all hotels. Oliver Wyman contracted for Loews Royal Pacific and Sapphire Falls resorts, but as the event neared, two neighboring hotels were added to the room block.
“You work with one planning team and one contact for guest rooms at all the Loews hotels,” Mohile says. “The entire process felt like working with one hotel, and we could have consistency on all the components for each hotel. For the rooming list, we could move attendees between hotels easily, and since they are part of Universal, we were able to cover costs inside the parks by charging it to our account. For example, we gave everyone a stipend for drinks and food at the parks, and they could charge it directly to their guest room. Offering these amenities was an added service.”
Mohile notes in previous years attendees had too many options, giving them reason to go off on their own. At Universal Orlando, the group never needed to go off property for team-building events, and evening parties were hosted at the hotels for all to attend. “We really wanted our colleagues to spend time together in person after a two-year hiatus, and this location was conducive to creating those opportunities.”
Oliver Wyman hosted an All Colleague Night at Universal Studios, starting with a block party dinner at Universal CityWalk using multiple restaurants, followed by a buyout of the theme park for dessert, dancing and private access to a few of the rides. “Working with Universal was a seamless experience,” Mohile says. “They were well organized to manage 1,500 people, moving them between the spaces, minimizing wait times for bars and food, and they created custom menus to accommodate dietary requirements. There is something special about walking into the park at night with your name there and owning the space.”
Mohile concludes: “If you plan to use Orlando, embrace the parks and leverage the experiences you can offer. There was a perception amongst some of our colleagues that Orlando wasn’t an exciting destination. We really took advantage of the Universal parks for team building, dinearounds and evening events,” Mohile says. “Almost all our colleagues said the experiences in the parks, especially the private buyout, made them feel valued and left a memory they won’t forget.” I&FMM